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Tempe rowing club volunteers support those with disabilities

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Successful rowing teams send their racing crafts gliding efficiently through the water by trying to maintain perfect synchronicity with each other throughout each stroke. It is an all-around team effort.

Members of the Rio Salado Rowing Club have applied the same principle in volunteering their time and expertise to make the sport accessible to people with disabilities.

Three years ago, the Tempe Town Lake-based club started the “Can Do Crew,” a program that uses smaller, modified versions of the racing boats traditional teams use called “racing shells.” The program prepares participants by combining on-the-water sessions with time spent on indoor rowing machines. And vital to the program are the coaches, rowing club members and others who volunteer their time.

The main goal is to share the benefits of rowing with everyone, including those with disabilities, says Wendy Benz, president of Rio Salado Rowing Club.

Can Do Crew member Jason Graber, who is in a wheel chair due to a thoracic spine injury he suffered in a car accident in 1994, says it takes at least three people just to make it possible for him to get on the water each day.

“None of it could be possible without our volunteers,” Graber says.

Two people are needed to carry his boat down to the dock for each practice. He needs help getting into the boat and assistance getting strapped in and his oars in place, Graber says.  Once he’s in the boat, he has one coach driving the launch on the water next to him as well as a coach in the boat with him.

Dan Duxbury, who has coached various levels of crews over several years, worked with Graber through volunteering his time to coach adaptive rowing with the Can Do Crew.

“As a competitive coach and competitive type of person, too, I like to be around those other people,” Duxbury says. “Being able to help these guys achieve their goals in a sport that was so new to them, I think was one of the most interesting things to me.” Duxbury says working with the Can Do Crew has taught him not to make assumptions about someone’s abilities or drive based on a disability.

“I’ve learned that athletes come in all shapes and sizes,” Duxbury says. “These guys who are in wheelchairs are some of the best athletes I’ve worked with as far as their attitude and their willingness to work.” The biggest difference in coaching adaptive rowers is the equipment.

The boats are slightly wider and shorter than a normal racing shell with pontoons on each side to prevent them from capsizing. Adaptive rowers also use specially made seats that are locked in place in the boat and feature lap and chest straps. Typical rowing seats slide to allow rowers to use their legs and arms to get the most powerful strokes possible.

Helen Griffin, who also volunteers her time as a coach, has been with the Can Do Crew since its inception. She coaches indoor rowing sessions and rows in the doubles boats with adaptive rowers while coaches like Duxbury drive the launch alongside the boat.

The program that started with the simple idea ­ “this should be a sport for everyone” ­ has brought Griffin an appreciation for how much is possible. One of the best things about being involved with the program is seeing the grins on people’s faces the first time they get on the water, she says.

“I’m making a difference in these people’s lives,” Griffin says.

For Graber, the Can Do Crew has brought success on and off the water.

He started with the indoor rowing aspect of the program as a means to lose weight for his wedding, with no initial interest of going out on the water.

It only took one time on the water to spark Graber’s love for the sport. He says getting out of his chair and having the freedom to cruise around the lake gives him a feeling he can’t put into words, saying, “It’s something you have to experience.” Graber says some of his best memories so far are his morning conversations and “guy time” with Duxbury after he’s coached him and guided him through a session on the water.

And those indoor and water rowing sessions have paid off for both coach and athlete. Graber placed second in the nation’s largest adaptive rowing competition, the BAYADA Regatta in Philadelphia.

Duxbury recalls how proud he was watching Graber race and to see everything they had worked on come together. Graber also placed second in the CRASH-B world indoor rowing championship in Boston.

Duxbury adds that while coaching is an important part of the equation, there are several other people who volunteer their time to enable the Can Do Crew to bring rowing to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do it.

“There are a lot of other people involved in it,” Duxbury says about the adaptive rowing program. “It really does depend on all of those other volunteers, and not just the coaches.”

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